By Christi Clancy
I never thought that a college tour with my seventeen-year-old daughter would be an emotionally fraught experience. I’m a professor, so I’m used to the campus environment. Our friends who have gone through this process marvel at the ways colleges have changed since we went to school, but I’m not surprised by mindfulness classes and meditation rooms, dining halls with vegan and gluten-free options and gender-neutral dorms and bathrooms.
But there I was on my first campus tour, not a professor, just another mom in a traveling pod of parents, siblings and high school juniors following our guide’s bouncing ponytail. She was a pretty, self-assured co-ed in Cleopatra sandals and Raybans. She pointed out the student artwork in the library, the international studies office and the common room in the dorm where a lonely looking kid in a t-shirt that said WEED banged on a piano. She’d pause occasionally and put her hand on her hip. “Any questions?”
I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t even focus. I was thinking about how old all the mothers and fathers looked, and I was roughly their same age. I’d tripped on one of those age touchstones that launch you into existential angst. Where had all the years gone? Wasn’t I just in college myself? Why didn’t I think about schools in California? Why didn’t I look at small, private colleges? Why didn’t I major in geology? Why hadn’t I traveled abroad? What would it be like to start over again, forging a whole different chain of life decisions, starting with this one?
I looked over at Olivia. I could still picture her in her car seat even though she’s half a foot taller than I am. She was walking with her arms across her chest, the sun glinting in her golden hair. She was far enough away to be mistaken for a student, which was probably her goal. I wanted to shout out that she was mine. I had a vision of her walking happily across the quad to class while I was two thousand miles away … two thousand miles! Going to a college far away sounded fine before, adventuresome. Now I could measure that distance by the inch.
Suddenly I wanted to duck into a bathroom to cry. What was my problem? Olivia had already taken the ACT twice. We’d talked about college, poured over the US News and World Report rankings and researched student to faculty ratios and acceptance rates.
I thought of a story I’d heard from a woman whose child had been born premature but survived. She said that even years later, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her child had been ripped out of her, ripped away. The late high school years are like the final trimester of a second, different kind of gestation. I must have gotten it into my head that we were both developing, approaching a point of ripeness, like an egg timer would ding and she’d be mature enough to leave me and survive, and I’d be ready to turn her bedroom into an office.
Letting go might be easy for some people, but on that college tour I started to think that it’s going to be a lot harder for me to be emotionally prepared for her to leave home than I’d thought. She’d been a horrible, colicky baby, comforted only by the hum of a vacuum cleaner. But over the years she turned into my favorite person to spend time with. We read People Magazine while we get pedicures, have long conversations about politics and religion, watch dumb reality TV shows and do her crazy workouts standing side by side in front of the mirrors at the gym.
It’s not that we have a perfect relationship. I resent the piles of clothes, crumbs on the countertops, the loud blender she uses to make her kale and chia seed smoothies in the morning. I worry when she’s out late, and we go to battle over too-tight, too-low outfits. But her habits, her days, are braided into my own, and the process of unbraiding will be a challenge— one that seemed unimaginable, or that I really just didn’t understand until we started looking at colleges.
Some of my friends have confessed that they experienced trauma when their kids left home, but I insisted to myself that they were the exception instead of the rule, and that the trauma was short-lived. One friend said she didn’t know how to fill her time anymore, while another friend said she would fold laundry on her daughter’s bed and cry and cry. My friend Susie said it’s not just your kid going to college that makes you sad, but the way your family changes, and you can’t ever go back. “Oh, honey. It’s like jumping off a bridge.”
Maybe the good news is that the jump happens in slow motion, one college tour, ACT test and college application at a time, slow enough that you understand what’s happening even if you can’t quite absorb it. Who knows, in another year I might be ready. But ever since the tours started, I go to sleep at night, thankful that my family is all under the same roof. Our daily drive to the high school seems more poignant. I feel a little rip in my gut every time she gets out of my car and I watch her walk towards the double-doors, one day closer to leaving.
Christi Clancy teaches English at Beloit College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, Hobart, Literary Mama and Wisconsin Public Radio. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two kids, Olivia and Tim.